I Don’t Celebrate Nochebuena Like I Used to, and That’s a Good Thing

published Dec 21, 2022
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Pretty wrapped present in brown paper, brown ribbon, dried flowers
Credit: Erika Layne

When December rolls around in my central Florida hometown, it doesn’t mean much. 

Temperatures continue to soar, and in place of snow-capped branches, Spanish moss clings to the live oak trees. It was always the residents themselves who beckoned in the holiday season, decorating their homes with festive ribbons and wrapping the sabal palms in their front yards with twinkling lights. 

Like so many other Latin American people across the globe, I celebrated Nochebuena while I lived in Florida each December 24. But since moving to New York, I found myself distanced from the holiday, both physically and culturally. It took years for me to find my footing and figure out how to honor the Christmas Eve tradition I know and love.

In Florida, I was joined by my loved ones in the hours leading up to midnight of Christmas Day, where we gossiped and blasted Elvis Crespo. Before that, we’d have spent hours cooking (and okay, maybe ordering) pernil, empanadas, fresh tortillas, and guava and cheese pastries.

During my first year attending university in New York, I flew south on my winter break to visit and celebrate as usual. But the following year was different; during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided not to travel home. This experience is far from unique; at the time, the CDC warned against non-essential travel in an effort to limit the spread of the virus, and people everywhere experienced their first socially-distanced holiday. Ultimately, these preventative measures were important and necessary. But it left me and so many others feeling a little lost.

In my case, the East Village railroad apartment I call home seemed to taunt me. I barely had enough space to fit a Christmas tree, and with no dishwasher, my cooking was limited. As I signed on to a Zoom call with a few family members and friends to check in, I told myself that next year, things would finally be normal again. But they weren’t, and the year after that wasn’t quite the same, either. 

Credit: Lisset Lanza

With the next yearly holiday travel rush, I hunkered down in New York until the crowds eased a little — and this year will be my fourth doing the same. Throughout this time, I advanced with my degree, and eventually, my career. Still, each December, I felt this need to capture the essence of Nochebuena. How special could that night be, really, if I was alone in my apartment with nothing but a bottle of homemade coquito and a fun-sized tree? This was certainly not how I remembered it.

Nochebuena’s observation on Christmas Eve can be traced back to Spanish colonialism and the introduction of Christianity to Latin America. While the holiday takes many forms, Nochebuena translates to “the good night,” and across regions, you can expect dinner, dancing, and usually Midnight Mass.

I had forgotten that it never actually mattered where we celebrated. The gathering itself was never assigned a permanent location. And sometimes, a tío or two couldn’t make it. There was no such thing as this perfect night that I had constructed in my head, with an optimal number of guests or dishes. Rather, all of those things came together as a backdrop for my family.

I have grown to recognize the power of my own space, especially one that feels definitely more mine with the passing of time. My apartment now feels more cozy than cramped, as I’ve incorporated plush upholstery and decorated with thick knit blankets. And overlooking my living area is a carefully curated gallery wall, the centerpiece of which was a gift given to me by my mother right before I spent my last Nochebuena in Florida.

I may not physically be there, but I can still belly-laugh with my primos over FaceTime. Togetherness does not have to be defined by proximity, and I do not have to rely on the past for guidance on how to move forward with the way I celebrate Nochebuena. After all, this is why I had moved to New York in the first place: to start on a new path.